For most of the world, watching the Australian Open is a welcome reprieve from winter. The vibrant blue courts radiate heat even through the TV, and the energy at the appropriately nicknamed Happy Slam is unique in the sport.
No other event on the tennis calendar has the air of drunken revelry and summertime abandon that Melbourne does and the intense heat, late nights and unusual hours for viewers in the Northern and Western Hemispheres lend the event a surreal quality. (Fortunately for the players, the weather forecast is relatively tame during the first week).
Not six weeks after the official end to the 2013 season, both tours have already fully geared up for the 2014 season, and with the first major of the year kicking off Jan. 13, we take a look at some of the big stories heading into Melbourne.
On the men’s side, the status quo is remarkably unshaken. Until they say otherwise, the ATP Tour is still Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal’s empire, and while the list of competitors is long, varied and full of talent, these two have a stranglehold on the sport. Last season, Nadal won 10 titles and Djokovic compiled seven; the next closest competitor had four.
After these two, the field is incredibly deep and in many ways unpredictable, and with big names like Andy Murray and Roger Federer heading into next week in uncertain form, the men’s draw could be broken open early and often. But at the end of Week 2, expect Nadal and Djokovic to still be standing.
The landscape on the women’s side doesn’t look significantly different. We're beginning to run out of ways to describe Serena Williams' simply incredible career. At an age when many female players have long since hung up their racquets, Williams only seems to be getting better.
Similar to the men’s game, the women’s draw could be littered with upsets, and whereas Victoria Azarenka is a safe bet to make it to the second week, there are few other players on the WTA who can be reliably counted on to join her.
Ever since Federer redefined what “dominance” meant on the ATP Tour 10 years ago, the top of the men’s game has become increasingly separated from the rest of the pack, and as long as Williams continues to play at the level she proved capable of in 2013, there’s little that anyone else can do. But the number of variables that go into a tennis match are countless, and there hasn’t been a Grand Slam in recent memory that didn’t have at least one big surprise. That’s why they play the match. And that’s why we watch.
Boris Becker at the 2013 US Open
Perhaps the biggest development of the off-season in the men’s game was the entrance of former tennis greats into the coaching arena. The irony of Ivan Lendl coaching Andy Murray to a Wimbledon title, the lone Grand Slam that evaded the Czech during his career, was not lost on the top ATP contenders.
Novak Djokovic announced his partnership with Boris Becker in December. In perfect harmony with the Murray-Lendl relationship, Djokovic has only to win the French Open to complete a career Grand Slam—the one major that eluded Becker.
Shortly before the new year, Roger Federer brought on Stefan Edberg for a 10-week coaching period beginning at the Australian Open. Federer has often cited the Swede as his "childhood hero," and Edberg may be the kick-start that Federer's game needs to help him regain his form and make a push toward the top again.
Prediction:Lendl’s role as a coach has done wonders for Murray, but the transition from player to coach is one that hasn't always been successfully navigated in recent years, most notably in Jimmy Connors' one-match stint as Maria Sharapova's coach this summer. The presence of former players in today's game as coaches has an interesting way of putting the coach in the limelight along with the player, something not often seen in the fiercely independent world of tennis.
Still, it is hard to argue with Lendl's results and for Djokovic and Federer, who had a particularly humdrum season in 2013, a new addition to their teams is likely a good thing. The Becker-Djokovic relationship, comprised of two big and sometimes prickly personalities, may be the riskier partnership.
Simona Halep at the Apia International in Sydney in January 2014
Simona Halep had perhaps one of the most quietly successful 2013 seasons, jumping 36 spots in the rankings and beating 2011 U.S. Open champion Samantha Stosur twice en route to her titles in Moscow and Sofia. Despite such a fruitful season, the Romanian failed to make an impression on the biggest stages, losing in the first round at the Australian Open and the French Open, and falling in the fourth round at the U.S. Open (her best showing at a Grand Slam) to Flavia Pennetta in straight sets.
At just 20 years old, American Sloane Stephens has already become a celebrity on the WTA Tour, kicked off by her tenacious three-set victory over Serena Williams at last year's Australian Open. Unfortunately for Stephens (and for fans looking for someone to routinely stand up to Williams), Stephens peaked early in the year, gaining only one more win over a top-10 player in 2013, a three-set victory over No. 3 Maria Sharapova in Cincinnati.
Stephens and Williams met again at the U.S. Open, and although the match was closer than the 6-4, 6-1 scoreline indicates, Williams proved that Stephens doesn’t have her number. At least not yet.
Prediction: The 2014 season has not started well for either player. Halep was upset in the first round at a Sydney warm-up event by another up-and-coming player, Madison Keys, and Stephens withdrew from the same event with a wrist injury. Looking back at 2013, Halep had the more consistent season, and it’s hard to argue with her six titles, compared to Stephens’ zero.
Until Halep can earn a win over a big-name player at a Slam, the spotlight will deservedly belong to Stephens. But expect Halep to make a deeper run in Melbourne. With a hurt wrist, sparse confidence and a heap of points to defend, Stephens is ripe for an upset during the first week if the draw doesn’t fall her way. Though Stephens did hire Paul Annacone during the off-season, it will probably take more than one tournament for Roger Federer’s former coach to make an impression.
For most players, a year-end No. 2 ranking and seven titles would be a career year, but for Novak Djokovic, 2013 was something of a conundrum. The Serb finished the year on a high note, winning four of his seven titles after the U.S. Open, but the return of Rafael Nadal forced Djokovic to play second-fiddle to the Spaniard following Nadal’s re-entry into the game after the Australian Open.
Nadal and Djokovic were 3-3 in their matches in 2013, but two of Nadal’s wins came in Slams, most notably a roller-coaster victory that the Spaniard eked out over Djokovic at Roland Garros.
What made Djokovic’s 2013 season so bizarre was that the problem didn’t readily present itself on paper. The Serb actually won one more title in 2013 than he did in 2012 and bookended his season perfectly with wins in Melbourne and at the World Tour Finals in London. He had only one loss to a player outside the top 25 (No. 28 Grigor Dimitrov in Madrid).
Prediction: Djokovic’s 2013 season was nothing to be ashamed of, but big wins over Nadal and Andy Murray in the majors are something he’ll be looking to improve on in 2014. Adding Becker to his camp is something of a risky move; when Djokovic brought on Todd Martin in 2009, his game stagnated, and the Serb’s outstanding 2011 season (arguably one of the best in tennis history) was under the tutelage of long-time coach Marian Vajda.
Unlike when Murray brought on Lendl, Djokovic’s game is not in need of a major overhaul and as long as Becker can subtly help the Serb, there’s no reason Djokovic can’t win the title in Melbourne.
Stanislas Wawrinka, like nearly every player of this generation, has had the misfortune of living in compatriot Roger Federer’s enormous shadow, but Wawrinka more than made a name for himself in 2013.
Finishing the year at a career-high No. 8, Wawrinka played some of the most exciting tennis matches of the year, two of which made Tennis.com’s Top 10 list. Wawrinka’s five-set victory over Richard Gasquet at the French Open was an amazing comeback from two sets down that showed a level of grit, physical endurance and heart rarely seen before from the Swiss player who beat the French crowd as much as Gasquet that day.
Ironically, during his career-year, Wawrinka’s most memorable moments were his losses. The two that stand out both came against Novak Djokovic. Both went five sets and both were in majors.
At the Australian Open and the U.S. Open, Wawrinka won the first set off Djokovic by sheer force, and though he lost both encounters in the end, Djokovic was forced to win those matches. With very few exceptions, Wawrinka gave nothing away.
Prediction: Wawrinka has started 2014 with a run to the title in Chennai, but his mettle will really be tested next week. Wawrinka arguably let that U.S. Open match against Djokovic slip away from him, but looking back at 2013, he should have no regrets.
As long as he can maintain his level of play and not let two heartbreaking losses from last season get in his head, there’s no reason that Wawrinka shouldn’t make some noise in Melbourne. But to finally get a win over one of the top players on the big stage, Wawrinka will have to find another gear.
If there’s one player who refuses to go away, it’s Lleyton Hewitt. At 32, with two Grand Slams and a litany of injuries to his name, Hewitt could easily hang up his racquet on what would be a Hall of Fame career and leave the game having maximized his potential.
But the Aussie isn’t done yet. Speed and agility have always been Hewitt’s biggest assets and though two hip surgeries have slowed him by half a step, the fight is still very much alive in Hewitt’s game.
Prediction: The Australian Open is usually Hewitt’s time to shine, but he was bounced last year in the first round by Janko Tipsarevic. Though Hewitt has never won his home title, he thrives playing in front of his native crowd, something many players struggle with, particularly at the French Open. Will Hewitt win the title this year? Almost certainly not, but he rarely has an off-day in Melbourne and with the right draw, he could make it to the second week.
The longer Serena Williams plays, the less likely it seems she’ll ever stop. And there are only so many superlatives one can use to describe her career. In 2013, her 18th year on tour, Williams won 11 titles, the most in a single year for her; compiled the longest winning streak of her career, winning 34 matches, starting in Miami and ending with her loss to Sabine Lisicki at Wimbledon; and finished the year ranked No. 1 for the third time.
The only player that can consistently stand on the other side of the net from an in-form Williams is Victoria Azarenka, who beat Williams twice in 2013 and once again proved at the U.S. Open that while she may not be able to beat Williams on her best day at a major, she is the only one capable of making a match out of it.
Azarenka is as close as she’s ever been to beating Williams, earning two of her three career wins over Williams in the past 12 months, but that’s nothing if not a statement of Williams’ dominance; even the next-closest competitor, Azarenka, is still pretty far away.
Predictions: With 17 major titles under her belt, Williams, on a 22-match winning streak, is on track to equal Martina Navratilova’s 18 Slam titles this month. Fox Sports Australia reports that Navratilova backed Williams to break Steffi Graf’s Open Era record of 22 Slams (Margaret Court holds the all-time record at 24 Slams).
One tournament into 2014, Williams has already beaten her two closest “rivals” (a somewhat ill-fitting term considering her collective 29-5 record against them), Azarenka and Maria Sharapova, both in straight sets in Brisbane. At some point, Azarenka or Sharapova may be able to beat Williams without Williams beating herself, but in the next two weeks. If anyone in the whole tournament is a safe bet to take home the trophy, it’s Williams.
What’s left to say about Rafael Nadal? The Spaniard has proven time and again that despite being sidelined with injuries, he can come back as strong as ever. After nearly seven months away from tennis, Nadal returned in February of last year to amass a 75-7 record, 10 titles and two Slams.
His only major hiccup came at Wimbledon, where he was upset by Steve Darcis in the first round, but in every other tournament he played in 2013, Nadal made the semifinals or better.
Prediction: Much of how the 2014 men’s season will go is predicated on if Nadal stays healthy. Though Novak Djokovic is the favorite heading into the tournament, Nadal was 2-0 against Djokovic in majors last year.
Djokovic did not play a warm-up event before the Australian Open this year and while Nadal captured the title in Doha, he was forced to a deciding set three times, all by players outside the top 30. The momentum has swung in Djokovic’s favor recently in matches against Nadal, but matches between these two are nearly impossible to predict, and as strong as the ATP Tour has become, the world Nos. 1 and 2 will likely meet in the final.
Though he has fallen out of the spotlight in many ways, Roger Federer is one of the more intriguing storylines heading into the Australian Open. Federer’s career can arguably be bifurcated into pre-Wimbledon 2008 and post-Wimbledon 2008, and it’s no secret that one of tennis’s greats is on the final leg of his career.
But 2013 was particularly disappointing; he won only one title, taking home the Halle trophy in June, failed to make it to a Grand Slam final for the first time since 2002, and suffered one of the most shocking upsets of the year, losing to Sergiy Stakhovsky in the second round at Wimbledon (rivaled only by Rafael Nadal’s upset at the hands of Steve Darcis two days earlier).
Federer looked solid in Brisbane before putting on a surprisingly sloppy performance in the final against Lleyton Hewitt, committing 22 unforced errors in the first set. Heading into the Australian Open, Federer is ranked No. 6, his lowest ranking heading to Melbourne in 11 years.
Prediction: Paul Annacone proved to be just what Federer needed when the Swiss brought him on in 2010, and perhaps Stefan Edberg’s arrival in the Federer camp will help the 17-time major champion find his old form yet again. There are undoubtedly aspects of Federer’s technical game that need improvement, most notably his trademark forehand, but the X-factor that used to make Federer such a formidable foe has dwindled.
Hopefully for Federer and for the game of tennis, that is where Edberg can make a big impact. Because of his lower seeding, Federer will likely have to fight through matches earlier and more often than he’s used to, and he will need a few breaks to go his way if he wants to find himself late in the second week of the tournament. But as long as Federer is still playing, counting him out is a dangerous move.
Maria Sharapova occupies an unusual place in the tennis world. When healthy, she is almost always considered a threat, but as long as Serena Williams is around, there’s not much room for that conversation.
Sharapova is one of many players who are very much on the wrong side of a head-to-head match-up with Williams, but for a four-time Grand Slam champion, her inability to find the answer to Williams is noteworthy. Sharapova hasn’t beaten Williams in almost 10 years and has only won one set in their last 10 meetings.
In 2013, the return of the right shoulder injury once again derailed Sharapova, and the Russian ended her season in August, reserving the rest of the year for rehab in preparation for 2014. She began the year in Brisbane, where she made a run to the semifinals before losing to…Williams.
Prediction: Sharapova has proven she can contend on the biggest stages, but until she can beat Williams in a major, that’s something of a moot point. At this point in her career and based on what she has achieved, Sharapova is not going to be content to settle for second (or third) place. Sven Groeneveld joined Sharapova’s team during the off-season, and a new set of eyes may help Sharapova find a new angle against Williams.
Additionally, the shoulder injury cannot be ignored. This problem has never fully gone away for Sharapova since it surfaced in 2008 and if she can’t serve at the highest level, her chances of beating Williams are even slimmer. She’ll likely make a run into Week 2, but the Russian can be susceptible to scrappy players.
After producing one of the greatest sports moments of the year in July, Andy Murray more or less called it a year. The Brits had waited 77 years for a homegrown champion, and Murray, the sometimes darling, sometimes goat of the British media finally delivered.
Following his historic win, Murray had a lackluster summer, losing to Ernests Gulbis and Tomas Berdych in straight sets. The Scot made a run to the quarterfinals in Flushing Meadows before Stanislas Wawrinka took him out in a one-sided straight-sets victory.
Murray would produce two more wins after that, helping Great Britain beat Croatia in a Davis Cup match, but ended his season prematurely in September in order to undergo back surgery. He returned to the court earlier this month in Doha, where he lost in the second round to No. 40 Florian Mayer after winning the first set (though Mayer is a trickier opponent than his ranking would indicate).
Prediction: The post-U.S. Open tournament lineup is not a particularly long stretch of time to be away from the game (as Murray’s No. 4 ranking would indicate), but the issue of post-surgery rehab and recovery makes Murray the biggest question mark on the men’s side heading into next week.
While one tournament certainly won’t definitively determine the severity of his injury, Murray’s performance in Melbourne will be an important indicator of the state of his game. Assessing Murray’s game is difficult given he only played two matches in Doha, and the first few rounds at the Australian Open will be key for him to getting back his match readiness.
Murray has proved himself to be a first-rate competitor at the top of the game over the last few years, and it would be unwise to bet against him making the second week. That said, a dangerous unseeded player such as Lleyton Hewitt or Fernando Verdasco could prove to be Murray’s undoing in the early rounds.